In May, works by Belarusian artists whose lives were touched by the Great Patriotic War came together in a shared event, hosted by various exhibition halls
For the Minsk gallery of the Belarusian Union of Artists — The Palace of Arts — May is a traditional time to arrange an exhibition featuring works by veterans; this year was no exception. On show are canvases by People’s Artists of Belarus Viktor Gromyko and Leonid Shchemelev, and Honoured Art Worker Boris Arakcheev. All have their own first-hand experience of war so, naturally, tend to explore the heroic and tragic events of the past. However, this year’s event radiates optimism and a belief in future, with canvases showing a brighter palette than usual.
In fact, 67 years after Victory, our national art remains just as serious as ever on this topic. Every major artist in the history of our national culture has presented their views on this theme: Zair Azgur, Valentin Volkov, Andrei Bembel, Ivan Akhremchik, Yevgeny Zaitsev, Mikhail Savitsky, Victor Gromyko, Gavriil Vashchenko, Vladimir Stelmashonok, Mai Dantsig, Leonid Shchemelev and Vasily Sumarev.
No doubt, the theme of war offers an entire universe of feelings; such experiences reverberate with deep psychological, social and moral repercussions. Each generation of artists strives to find its own key to open up the door to such emotions. In the 1940-50s, when such works first began to appear, canvases seemed overly staged and artificial, although they certainly conveyed true feeling. They were ‘of their time’, embodying the personal experiences of each artist. Meanwhile, they aimed to lift the spirits. Their graphic accuracy reflected the style of the times, which required numerous preparatory sketches and drafts, meticulously recreating a ‘true’ representation — typical of Belarusian social realism. Back then, they presented an immediate response to recent memories of the war, which remained simmering in minds and hearts. Accordingly, images were precise and dramatic, markedly honest.
Some works from those times may be rather shallow in terms of psychological insight but the leading artists of the first post-war generation found strong pictorial means to give them creative longevity. Genre classics include large-scale multi-figure compositions by Yevgeny Zaitsev, Sergey Romanov, Ivan Akhremchik and Valentin Volkov, and sculptural portraits by Zair Azgur and Andrey Bembel. Development of the patriotic-war theme in pictorial art was, primarily, driven by battlefield paintings and sketches, which captured vivid moments. Those years saw plots such as the tragic death of a hero, opposition, the bitter taste of loss, dramatic collisions on the battlefield, the dogs of war and occupation, as well as individual portraits. Partisans often figured largely, showing the human and moral face of the war and majorly influencing the evolution of Belarusian pictorial art.
As time passed, approaches to the war theme changed, with new motifs and accents appearing. The major focus shifted from documentary precision to the revelation of the deep philosophical meaning underlying events, real-time continuity, generalisation and a stronger element of propaganda. Not all elements are equally valuable but the trend has undoubtedly enriched our pictorial art, broadening its horizons.
It is probably the patriotic-war theme, successfully developed by Leonid Shchemelev, Georgy Poplavsky, Viktor Gromyko, Nikolay Nazarchuk, Nikolai Nazarenko and Boris Arakcheev, which has contributed most. The moral motifs, scarce in earlier paintings, take the lead, showing us human dramas and farewells with loved ones.
A new, innovative touch to the theme is given by works such as Partisan Wedding by Mai Dantsig, Birth by Leonid Shchemelev and works by Mikhail Savitsky: they rely on metaphors and symbols to transform regular events, their content intensified by the expressiveness of silhouettes and colours.
Later, documentary details became popular again. By the 1970s, most works exhibited nostalgic elements, striving to portray events as closely to the truth as possible. This is evident in the multi-figure compositions of Ivan Tikhonov, Anatoly Shibnev and Sergey Romanov. Back then, Mikhail Savitsky created his unique Fingers on the Heart series, based on autobiographical materials. His canvases are not simply a dramatic exploration of war’s hardships but an intense monologue of someone witnessing horrific events. His method is highly emotional.
Over the years, many war-theme artists, including those who participated in battle, shifted their attention towards a wider variety of human emotions — beyond ideological limits. Naturally, emotions gradually faded, becoming less acute, as though covered with a veil. The prevailing mood is of distant sorrow or lament — as seen in Soldiers and Towards Immortality by Iosif Belanovich, and Spring and Restless Winter by Kim Shestovsky. Frequently, the ‘women and war’ theme comes to the fore: we see refugees, lonely widows, barren lands and generalised, symbolic images. In Iosif Belanovich’s June 22: Brest Fortress, a mother wears mourning clothes and holds a child in her arms — alluding to the classic mourning motif. Fedor Baranovsky’s famous Bath House has a new, lyrical, soft aspect. The cheerful, everyday plot celebrates women’s beauty, in devastating contrast to the inhuman tragedy of war.
From the 1970s onwards, symbolic compositions became increasingly popular. War is represented indirectly — via people, nature, architecture and other subjects: I Went Through That War by Boris Nepomnyashchy and Portrait of Son by Nikolay Kureichik.
The approach continued into the last two decades. Though the previous depth of understanding is essentially gone, obvious images come to the fore, as in Old General and A Boy by Vladimir Kozhukh. We see a similar minimalism, with fragmentary frame layout and religious symbolic scenes in Grigory Nesterov’s Moments of Eternity and Nadezhda Liventseva’s Year of 1941.
The problem with modern attempts to tackle the war theme, as is evident at the current exhibition at the Minsk gallery of the Belarusian Union of Artists, is that most of today’s imagery and artistic techniques lack originality. No one has explored the issues of evil, courage and heroism by unfamiliar means, with many still relying on the legacy of the Soviet battle genre in depicting war scenes. They are inspired by historical (Vladimir Urodnich, Mikhail Merenkov and Svyatoslav Fedorenko) and modern materials (Gennady Loiko, Leonid Dudarenko, Vladimir Gordeenko and Nikolay Opiok) but continue to use the traditional veteran portrait style: Portrait of a Father by Vladimir Gladkov, Portrait of Colonel Zotov, the Soviet Union Hero by Nikolai Volynets, Fellow Soldier by Vladimir Slinchenko, and Portrait of a Victor by Alexander Batvinenok.
Interestingly, the predominant style at the exhibition is lyrical landscapes and still-life paintings — although the war appears in their choice of landscape, as seen in Peaceful Skies Over Buynichskoye Field by Boris Arakcheev. Meanwhile, we see nostalgia for a bygone age in Battle Roads by Alexey Zinchuk, Occupation by Leonid Shchemelev, The Year of 1945: From My Life by Nikolay Nazarchuk, and To the Glorious Reconnoitres of my Regiment by Victor Gromyko.
Unfortunately, there are few works by young post-Soviet artists, as only a handful are willing to take responsibility for socially significant themes. Of course, the potential of the theme is endless but a certain resistance exists. The war’s legacy is both social and cultural and lends itself to the juxtaposition of such eternal fundamentals as good and evil and loyalty and treachery: all that which inspires creativity in whatever style, trend or medium. An innovative understanding of the theme, as developed in Belarusian art, can only be achieved via the search for the most relevant concepts and unbounded creative rethinking of traditional methods of embodying the war theme. The results of such efforts mainly depend on the dictates of the time, on professionalism and on the intellectual experience of the new artistic generation.
Indeed, for the senior generation of artists, the war was inherent to their biographies; many of their works essentially grew to become epic tales of their personal experiences. However, as those events fade in time, artists are more willing to use figurative means: psychological, romantic or lyrical. The war is now gaining a ‘human’ face, with today’s artists striving not only to represent real circumstances and deeds but to establish associative links and convey emotions — both sad and joyous. In this natural way, they share their intimate thoughts and feelings.
It is only fair to say that the 21st century is proving fruitful in terms of the military-patriotic genre. The only difference is that, while earlier war tales were told from first-hand experience, drawing on personal memories of events, today’s artists represent what they have read about and heard, which gives them a more objective, historical aspect. They emphasise the courage of people in their struggle against the enemy and celebrate the joy of Victory.
Nikolay Opiok, the head of the Defence Ministry’s military artists’ studio, believes, “Our goal is to preserve the best achievements of the past. Each and every artist is free to make their own choices, reflecting their abilities, artistic daring and civil stance. If you are willing to dig deep into history, seeking spectacular moments of private interest, then do so. The essential aspect is to contrast victory against defeat, showing pain and happiness, strength, courage and bravery, being honest to the past and present.”
The Defence Ministry studio’s artists aspire to learn as much as possible about today’s military service, travelling all over the country, sketching various military facilities for later use as inspiration in new paintings: Minsk Suvorov Military School Graduates by Nikolay Opiok, Buynichskoye Field by Vladimir Urodnich and Ballad of Pilot Vladimir Khorvat by Vladimir Gordeenko, to mention a few. They have iconic battle paintings from Soviet times to also inspire them: Defence of Sevastopol by Alexander Daineko, Brest Fortress Defenders by Yevgeny Zaitsev and Liberation of Minsk on July 3rd, 1944 by Valentin Volkov.
Sixty seven years have passed since the skies over Belarusian lands endured the threat of war. Their blue colour is not only a delight to our children but to our artists. Peacefulness and humanity are distinctive features of our national psyche, which is reflected in our national art.
Some artists’ moral values remain unaffected by trends. Adolf Gugel and Raisa Kudrevich’s works exhibit no extravagance of style and no complex techniques. Their artistic universe is filled with optimism, faith in ideals, warmth and spirituality. Their works are like drinking from a clear spring, each mouthful making us purer and more benign, imbuing new spiritual powers. Just after the war, Adolf and Raisa, who belong to the Vitebsk artistic school, refined and strengthened their skills, establishing themselves as artists of national significance. Their lives have been filled with bright, creative achievements, honourable titles and high prizes. If listed, their works would run for pages.
In the post-war period, most artists explored the struggle against the Nazi invaders. Adolf Gugel’s immense potential was evident as early as 1947, in his At the Grave of a Hero and in 1949 with Important Notice. Both show the sufferings of war. He aspired to show how human nature reveals itself under the greatest physical and mental strain, while focusing on history-related themes. His spiritually strong characters show his exploration of ‘true personality’ in his most significant works: Chernyshevsky and Dobrolyubov in Sovremennik Magazine’s Editorial Office and From the Past. He was a mature master of multi-figure composition.
Simultaneously, Raisa Kudrevich explored a quite different theme, painting peaceful routine and love scenes. Even her earliest works — To the Home Collective Farm, Harmonist Approaching and Belarusian Tunes — reveal the major features of her style: lyricism and romance and an ability to create precise psychological portraits. She is inspired by various genres (portrait, landscape and still-life) conveying underlying moods and emotions with effortless, unfettered freshness.
However, it is in the nature of all artists to search out new avenues. By the 1970s, Gugel had painted a whole series of war paintings: Partisan Ballad, At Dawn — Going for Partisans and Children of War. Some of his works from this period — such as Communards and Worrisome Youth — explore the revolution; others — such as Dairymaids and Youth — depict peaceful everyday routine. Meanwhile, Women Decembrists is a heart-piercing tale of love and loyalty. His more profound approach to interpreting these historical-revolutionary events allows Gugel to express himself more deeply, embracing metaphors and other artistic means.
Within the same period, Raisa Kudrevich produced genre pictures — such as First Meeting and Before Concert. Each takes her one step closer towards revealing the mystery of painting. She is genuinely attracted by the extraordinarily romantic world of youth, seeking to discover spirituality through her characters. We see this clearly in her First Rehearsal and Spring 1945, which tell of the fate of an entire female generation. Her canvases, sincere and confessionary, create a world of faith, hope and beauty. However, she also shares Adolf Gugel’s interest in the historical-revolutionary theme, as is evident in her multi-figure composition Rudobelskaya Republic — an emotionally convincing story of Soviet power being established in Belarus.
In 1956, their interest in Belarusian history brought the artists together, resulting in a monumental multi-figure composition, entitled Kastus Kalinovsky. It is a psychologically consistent portrait of the 19th century Belarusian revolutionary democrat involved in the popular uprising against the absolutist Tsarist regime. This was followed by yet another work — a huge triptych devoted to the 1917 revolution: Symphony of Revolution, Grenada and Internationale. Their creation was a feat of professionalism and commitment. Through these paintings, they tried to show the essence of social transformations.
Their joint works Eternal Glory and To the Partisans of Belarus portray memorable Great Patriotic War events. Though different, they share compositional integrity and an expressive pictorial manner. To the Partisans of Belarus is distinguished by vivid emotions, resounding with the personal empathies of the artists.
In fact, the interests of Gugel and Kudrevich extended far beyond the themes of war and revolution. Attracted by the charm of the surrounding world, they often chose to paint friends or some interesting person, plunging into the real world with exultation. They were driven by a natural desire to listen to the world, embracing its beauty, harmony and light and, having viewed these with their hearts, brought them to life on canvas.
Thus are lyrical paintings, portraits, landscapes and still-life works born... Each artist’s works indicate a new turn in their creativity, showing new facets of their talent. Though Gugel and Kudrevich established themselves as experts in large-scale figural compositions, they are often thought of as strong, thoughtful portraitists, with their own analytical approach to the genre. As a portraitist, Gugel emphasises the significance of the individual: Man in a Cap, Fisherman and Gymnast. Kudrevich also aspires to extract the essence of a person, focusing on their spirit: Portrait in a White Fur Coat, Natasha, Portrait of a Father and Portrait in a Red Hat.
They commonly introduce a narrative or a landscape into their portraits, enabling them to diversify their composition, avoiding clichй. Their landscapes are also an essential part of their creativity. Having travelled countrywide and abroad many times, their first-hand impressions gave a new dimension to their scenes. Spring in Vyazynka is a remarkable painting inspired by the natural beauties of Belarusian poet Yanka Kupala’s native land — full of light, semi-shadow and vibrating forms which seem to melt and shift, blending with the sunlight and the air. Meanwhile, Spring in Rakov, Spring in Serebryanka, Morning in Blue and others bring us the smell of fresh spring air. We feel the power of nature awakening. These paintings have their own rugged rhythm, urgent and dynamic, then slow in tempo, evoking musical associations.
Interestingly, their long-lived joint creativity greatly influenced their individual styles, enriching them with new elements. Raisa Kudrevich’s romantic and lyrical inflections softened the philosophical and somewhat rational approach of Adolf Gugel, providing for a shared vision and common creative ground.
Their paintings are, at the very least, documentary representations of the past, coming alive through vivid artistic images. They enable us to feel the very essence of the artists’ thoughts. Each had witnessed sufferings first-hand and, naturally, drew upon their experiences; these memories became intermingled with their reality.
Works by Gugel and Kudrevich are now distanced from us by time and space, yet they retain a strong life force, perhaps from the very souls of their creators. The world has changed but their canvases allow us to empathise, heart and soul, with the brave heroes who fought for their Motherland and who celebrated its beauty on Victory Day.
By Victor Mikhailov
[b]In May, works by Belarusian artists whose lives were touched by the Great Patriotic War came together in a shared event, hosted by various exhibition halls[/b]For the Minsk gallery of the Belarusian Union of Artists — The Palace of Arts — May is a traditional time to arrange an exhibition featuring works by veterans; this year was no exception. On show are canvases by People’s Artists of Belarus Viktor Gromyko and Leonid Shchemelev, and Honoured Art Worker Boris Arakcheev.